Cover image of "The Invention of Nature," a biography of the man who invented ecology

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

He was the most famous man in the world, and more places are named after him than anyone else. To many of the giants of his time—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau—he was a colossus whose genius overshadowed their own. He was the first to describe the web of life on Earth, foreshadowing James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, and the first to anticipate the impact of human activity on the world’s climate. His books, which read like poetry, “were so popular that people bribed booksellers to be the first to receive copies.” Eleven years after his death at age eighty-nine, the centennial of his birth was observed by hundreds of thousands of people in huge celebrations around the world. And chances are you’ve never heard of him.

His name was Alexander von Humboldt, and he died in 1859. He had first described climate change in 1800. He “gave us his concept of nature itself.”

The genius who invented ecology

Andrea Wulf’s engrossing biography, The Invention of Nature, brings this extraordinary man into the spotlight again after a century and a half. It’s about time. His may well have been one of the finest minds in human history.

Humboldt was born into a prosperous family of Prussian aristocrats shortly after the American Civil War. He rebelled against the constraints on his life and set out on his own unique path. Though he became best known as a naturalist, world traveler, and author, his interests reached into a far wider range of human endeavor. And Cosmos, the multi-volume book he began to write at the age of sixty-five, encompassed virtually the whole of human knowledge, from botany, geology, and zoology to astronomy, and philosophy. In effect, Cosmos introduced the new science he invented: ecology. Though properly speaking Humboldt didn’t invent ecology, his work was the inspiration for the German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel, who crafted the term in 1866, seven years after von Humboldt’s death.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (2015) 576 pages ★★★★★

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, the man who invented ecology
Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt painted by Joseph Karl Stieler in 1843. Image: Wikipedia

Humboldt’s “wonderful web of organic life”

As Wulf notes, “Humboldt took his readers from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet into its inner core. He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of mountains. He wrote about the migration of the human species, about plants and animals and the microscopic organisms that live in stagnant water or on the weathered surface of rocks.” Never before, and never since (to the best of my knowledge), has a single individual mastered so many fields of inquiry so successfully that his contemporaries regarded him as a force of nature. And, in an age when most of humanity lived in thrall to organized religion, Humboldt didn’t once mention God in all the many thousands of pages of his books. Instead, he spoke of a “wonderful web of organic life.”

Andrea Wulf’s biography of this astonishing man is by no means unreservedly positive. She describes the shortcomings of his personality in embarrassing detail. His tendency to talk nonstop at a rapid rate for hours without permitting interruptions of any kind, regardless of the stature of his listeners. Seeming inability to understand the feelings of others and to show empathy for their pain. Venomous gossiping. And inability to accept criticism. Alexander von Humboldt was not a nice man. But, then, we’re accustomed to geniuses who aren’t.

About the author

Photo of Andrea Wulf, author of this biography of the man who invented ecology
Andrea Wulf. Image: Antonina Gern for the author’s website

Andrea Wulf is a German-British historian and nonfiction author. She was born in 1972 in New Delhi, where her parents worked in overseas development. She grew up in Hamburg after the age of five. Wulf attended the University of Lüneburg, and then studied design history at The Royal College of Art, London. She now lives in Britain. The Invention of Nature was the fifth of her seven books to date.

Check out Good books about climate change.

You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19. It’s also one of the books I’ve included in my posts, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us and 10 best books about innovation.

For an unsatisfactory fictional biography of Von Humboldt, see Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (The greatest scientists of the 19th century).

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